Fostering Long-Term Motivation Part 1: Academic Advisors, Early Enthusiasm, and Goal-Setting

This blog is a series on postsecondary students’ long-term motivation during their degree programs and how student service departments can foster motivation at all points of the student’s journey.

Postsecondary academic journeys are simply exciting; embarking on a degree program is an entirely new experience and one fraught with potential. Whether a student is joining right out of college or deciding to pursue a degree later in life, the decision to start is a significant one, and those first few weeks have an electric enthusiasm. Mental commitments to studying, to making progress and finishing, to learn all there is to learn, to meet people and make connections, to take advantage of all the resources and networks, to balance it all—everything feels new and pure. The motivation at this time never quite feels the same, and I have been thinking a lot about how schools foster motivation long-term and how student services can foster student motivation for the entirety of their tenure. Last week, we talked about student on-boarding and how to continue supporting students as they navigate postsecondary life; for students who are well into their degree program and who may be waning in their interest, potentially impeding their progress in a detrimental way, what role can student services play to re-spark that initial motivation?

Whether a student is joining right out of college or deciding to pursue a degree later in life, the decision to start is a significant one, and those first few weeks have an electric enthusiasm.”

A key entity in the student services realm is the academic advisor. Called upon to guide students in making academic decisions that align with their goals and interests, academic advisors have many opportunities to influence students’ progress. I do not recall working with an academic advisor as an undergraduate at all; I think my friends and I mostly navigated requirements and class schedules on our own. I’m certain I didn’t receive career counseling in connection to my major. My guess is that academic advisors are more proactive than when I was in college, but if they are not proactively meeting with every student, I would recommend that schools mandate a one-on-one with an advisor at least once a year, if not twice, to check in with students and confirm or revise their academic plan as needed. At the very least, advisors should meet with undergraduate students in their first few weeks to initiate academic planning and foster a long-term vision. Advisors can capitalize on that initial enthusiasm by helping students articulate their ‘“why.” What brought them to their program and why are they intent on finishing? What drives them to succeed when faced with challenges? Are they driven by a specific career goal, the potential for greater financial stability, making themselves or their family proud, or a strong love of learning? Helping students create a vision statement for their postsecondary career provides a foundation to which students can return when they feel discouraged, overwhelmed, or defeated. Their “why” helps them return to their purpose and find their motivation again and the advisor becomes in integrated resource. Academic advisors can be the keepers of this vision statement and use it to coach students later on when needed.

Academic advisors as a student service can also support initial student motivation by assisting them with goals. A student’s goals are different than their “why.” The “why” is the inspiration, the ultimate purpose for their degree, while goals are the incremental milestones or accomplishments along the way. For example, a student’s “why” for obtaining a degree may be to provide better financial support for their family. Some goals are to graduate with a double minor or pass their field’s credentialing exam on the first try. Goals are typically academic but can also be social or personal, such as making new friends or getting eight hours of sleep. As goals are accomplished, new ones can be created. If needs change, the goals can also change. Writing down some goals and commitments at the beginning is a helpful exercise because you can tie them to the student’s purpose, which makes them more meaningful, and you can make them lofty enough to be inspiring but practical enough to be doable, providing the student with some direction.

I remember that I wrote both individual and collective goals with my cohort when I started my doctorate program. Our commitments ranged from always staying focused in class and not wandering on our computers to taking advantage of all our campus had to offer. We wrote them down, which is a best practice for goal setting. The one thing missing, though, was that we never revisited those goals. We never went back to them after that first month and therefore never had the reminder of the milestones borne out of our initial enthusiasm. People need to return to their goals regularly to keep their focus, and it also helps to tell someone about them. Had we kept our written goals somewhere prominent, even if it was digital, and had carved some time to look at them periodically, we may have sparked some motivation at crucial times, like our qualifying exams and proposing our dissertations. We found other ways, of course, but here is where regular meetings with an academic advisor become important. They can be the sounding board for writing, hearing, and revisiting students’ goals, helping carry those goals all the way through the student’s journey rather than writing them without much intention to use them.

Lastly, academic advisors can capitalize on students’ early motivation by helping them identify and establish some productive habits. Because undergraduate students are experiencing so many changes, whether they’re living on campus, commuting, or attending online, this isn’t the time for a life overhaul. However, establishing one or two healthy habits built off that initial motivation can set the student up for long-term success. Key habits are sleeping enough, eating well, and learning effective study practices, but the academic advisor can base their guidance on the students’ current habits and unique needs. For a student who wants to learn all there is to learn and struggles with focus, finding the right resources at the right time may be the only pattern they need to master. For a student who wants to make connections, working in volunteerism once or twice a month may be a habit they want to establish. Students can start these habits early on and hopefully set a pattern before their enthusiasm decreases and they have trouble embarking on any new ones.

I recognize that I’m asking a lot of academic advisors. Particularly at big universities, the ratio of advisors to students may be untenable for this kind of individual coaching. In that case, setting a vision statement and writing goals may be part of new student orientation and advisors can simply be the holders of students’ ideas so that, should a student who is struggling or falling behind come to them, they can pull them up and use them to frame the conversation. Establishing good habits to sustain motivation can come from student mentors, such as resident assistants or mentor buddies, or through the institution’s wellness clinic. Any kind of structured goal-setting that is revisited regularly will go a long way. I’m a huge supporter of that human connection, though, and think it’s the most effective way to motivate others. So if possible, and ideally, academic advisors would be a kind, reliable resource when motivation gets low. However schools are able to provide that type of support, the hope is that students’ early motivation stays ignited for a much longer period of time and carries them through degree completion.